Category: editorials

How to Write About a Book

What does an author do for a semi-landmark like this, my 300th post? 300 is a somewhat ungainly number; it’s two too many hundreds to be special, but not halfway to a fourth digit like 500. It was made famous at Thermopylae, but a web log hardly merits a comparison to an event of that stature. Nonetheless, since it’s taken over nine years to get to this point, I’ll go ahead and take the opportunity to pat myself on the back – hooray for me!

Anyway, I don’t claim to be a particularly talented writer, but after so many posts, most of them reviews of some kind at this point, I can say that I’m comfortable writing and fairly confident in my ability to talk about books, fiction or non-fiction. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some advice with those who’d like to get better at writing and talking about literature themselves.

This subject will most interest students, of course, and perhaps others thinking of starting a literature blog, or maybe just members of a book club. I can honestly say, though, that writing has been immensely helpful in my own intellectual growth. I’ve written elsewhere that good art is something to be savoured, not scarfed down like fast food. The habits I’ve gained as part of running this blog have ensured that I digest what I read more fully, even for books that I don’t go on to review. So, I hope everyone will find at least some of my advice useful, and if you’ve given any thought to doing some writing of your own then by all means give it a shot, and don’t be discouraged if your early efforts turn out awkward. If you come away from this post with one main idea, let it be this: writing about literature (or non-fiction) is a learned skill, and like any other skill, you’ll only get good at it with practice.…

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Richard III, Reading Shakespeare, and Another Way to Fail at Kingship

William Shakespeare’s renown in the English-speaking world knows no bounds. He gets his own section in most libraries and bookstores, he’s assigned in every English curriculum, and in any major city there’s almost always a production of one of his plays going on at any time. Take a poll asking for the greatest poet, dramatist, or even general writer in English, and the Bard will win almost every time. In fact, he’s so famous that we don’t even need to call him by his name; just say “the Bard,” and people know who you’re talking about, like how St. Thomas Aquinas just calls Aristotle “the Philosopher.”

However, there’s also a phenomenon with Shakespeare similar to an observation C. S. Lewis once made about Scripture – if you tried to judge the amount of Bible-reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you’d be far off the mark. A lot of people never approach Shakespeare’s work outside of class assignments, and find him difficult for several reasons. A common one is his diction; coworker of mine once said, only half-jokingly, that he’d be more interested in Shakespeare if Shakespeare wrote in English. Of course, not only did he write in English, he wrote in Modern English, albeit early Modern English.

A good illustration of the difficulties people run into is the famous opening soliloquy in Richard III, which I just watched recently:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

As soon as people see this, I suspect many of them feel like they need to dissect it like a frog in biology class, as they were always required to do in school. “What’s the metre here? Any assonance or alliteration? There is a pun on ‘son’ and ‘sun’, I should mention that. Who is the ‘son of York,’ anyway? There’s also a lot of contrast between images in each lines…” and so on. Are you really supposed to get all of this?…

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Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?

tezuka_osamuLast weekend I wrote up a recommended reading list as a permanent page, and as I came to the end I briefly considered adding a section for comics, but decided against it because my goal was to direct people to higher art; pop culture already has enough promotion.

While thinking about some of the graphic novels I may have added, I noticed that most of them were works that I’d only really recommend to someone specifically interested in the medium. I took a look at the general fiction section and considered whether I’d encourage anyone to read them before even the relatively lighter works, like The Things They Carried or The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and the answer was no, I wouldn’t.

Why is this? It’s not as though I’m only working from a small sample size; I’ve read dozens of these works, including those that are commonly cited as the best of the medium, like WatchmenThe Dark Knight Returns, a few works by Tezuka Osamu, as well as some more niche titles like Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths or A Bride’s Story. Are comics just inherently an inferior medium? How would one even go about comparing different media?…

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Why Do You Not Study the Odes?

Compared to 2015, I’ve spent much of 2016 so far writing more about literature. Those who started following this blog last year, when non-fiction covered the bulk of my material, at least aside from comics I used largely to pad out the 75 Book Challenge, may see this as a slight change of course. However, it’s a return to what I’ve always considered my primary academic focus, and honestly I think that my discussions of literature are more important than those on history or political science.

Now, I think that much of my audience is already sold on the value of good art, and has some appreciation of beauty. I know a lot of people in my online social circles who’ve given up on television, and in a few cases even on popular music. This is very good; I and most of my readership are on the Right, and the Right stands for order, and good art is conducive to that while bad art is corrosive of it. It’s worth noting that Reactionary blogs have, to a small extent, begun to write more about the arts. Nick B. Steves noticed this trend in a recent edition of This Week in Reaction, in which he was generous enough to include a link to my post on the Cavalier poets, and he attributed it partly to Chris Gale. E. Anthony Gray’s very worthwhile series on various poets like Goethe and Coleridge published on Social Matter is worth pointing out, as well, and of course Wrath of Gnon has been encouraging an appreciation for the beautiful for a long time on both tumblr and Twitter.

Nonetheless, the lesson still hasn’t quite sunk in in many quarters. The overwhelming focus among Reactionaries is politics, some political theory, and occasional forays into history. Though understandable, since these seem to allow for more direct understanding of what’s wrong with the world and what to do about it, it creates a man with a rather inhuman, incomplete, and unpleasant outlook. The worst offenders, and I won’t specify them, are those who revel in outrage porn and finding the most degenerate news stories and social trends they can find, then blogging or podcasting about them, as though it’s something hidden that needs to be exposed. They’re like connoisseurs of crap; when most men would just step around whatever cultural dog turd they come across, these bloggers put it in a jar, label it, and insist on showing the rest of us their collection. Thank you, professor, that is indeed interesting and quite informative. Now, you are going to wash your hands before you eat anything, correct?

This obsession with finding the most dysfunctional people in the Western world and stewing in pots of outrage porn, besides being unpleasant, demoralises those who spend too much time on it, and likely contributes to the fairly high rate of burnout among online Reactionaries. A man of the Right should, of course, be aware of what’s going on in the broader culture he lives in, but he should spend more time on the beautiful than the ugly. Spend more time, much more time, on the beautiful, if only for your own sake. As I’ve discussed twice before, in “The Moral Dimension of Judging Art” and “An Experiment in Fandom Criticism,” too much bad art is unhealthy both spiritually and mentally; good art is healthy in both senses.

As for the practical aspect, the arts may have less immediate application than history or politics, but a well-rounded man will have some familiarity with both realms. No lesser thinker than Aristotle, besides writing foundational work on ethics, politics, and metaphysics, devoted an entire book to poetry, with the straightforward title The Poetics, which is still essential reading for anyone interested in literature.

Rembrandt_-_Aristotle_with_a_Bust_of_Homer_-_WGA19232

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An Experiment in Fandom Criticism

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “What’s Up with Anime Fans?” In short, I considered why anime and its fandom make some people, including some of its own fans, uncomfortable, and concluded that the problem isn’t anime in itself so much as the culture surrounding it, and that the fandom’s awkwardness is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. I still agree with most of that post, but it raises a couple broader questions that may be worth considering. First, can we judge a medium by its fans? Second, can we judge a person’s character by the media he consumes?

First, we should recognise that though the quality of art isn’t as objective or precise as, say, mathematics or the natural sciences, this does not mean that it is completely subjective and unarguable. The simplest criteria we can use to judge the quality of a work is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to do. If it’s a comedy, does it make the audience laugh? If a tragedy, does it give a sense of catharsis? Responses will vary, of course – humour in particular is notoriously subjective – but things become clearer if we examine why a work succeeds or not. Is the plot coherent, the characters believable, the spectacle artful? Taken together, did the various parts of the work each contribute to the intended effect? Should any of the parts be removed, did anything need to be added?

Furthermore, there is a moral dimension to judging art. The best works uplift the audience in some way. This certainly does not mean having an explicit moral; in fact, explicitness is often counter-productive. Compare the uplifting but enjoyable Lord of the Rings to the preachy, unbearable Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

From Bakshi's film adaptatin of Lord of the Rings
From Ralph Bakshi’s film adaptation of Lord of the Rings
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What’s the Appeal of Mishima Yukio?

SFA222007830A while back, while visiting a friend of mine, I mentioned having recently re-watched Paul Schrader’s fascinating biographical film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. He had never heard of Mishima Yukio, and after explaining that he’s famous as one of Japan’s greatest novelists and infamous for committing suicide in spectacular fashion in 1970, he asked why I had such obvious admiration for a man who committed suicide, which, being a faithful Catholic, I consider to be an inherently evil action.

It’s a fair question, and one that I could have dodged by saying I just like his novels. I certainly do love his novels, but that isn’t what first attracted me to his work. Rather, my first exposure to him came in my days as a college-age delinquent. He was one of a handful of authors in the university library’s small section for Japanese language and literature, and since I didn’t have a lot of time I grabbed the shortest book there, Sun and Steel.…

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Notes on the Didactic Use of Fiction

“Didactic” literature has a poor reputation, in part because of its distinguished critics. J.R.R. Tolkien’s dislike of allegory is well-known, and his friend C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is often compared unfavourably to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings partly because one is allegorical and one is not. Edgar Allan Poe also criticised explicitly didactic literature, and Lewis Carroll mocked the tendency to look for a “moral” to stories via Wonderland‘s Duchess character.

Certainly, stories written with a particular moral in mind often turn out awkward or hammy, but can we entirely discount a didactic use of fiction? After all, Aristotle points out in the Poetics that children learn primarily through mimesis (roughly, “imitation”), and he refers to drama and epic poetry as “mimetic” arts, since they’re imitations of (what is plausibly) real life. Few, I think, would deny that the best way to learn something is often through experience; the more successful businessman will generally be the one who has been in business for several years, not the one who has merely read the abstract principles of economics, and one could regard fiction as a vicarious form of gaining experience.…

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Short Thoughts on Long Arguments

As I mentioned in my last Bibliophile’s Journal post, I recently read one of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Biblical commentaries. Since I have a lot of time to kill at work and not a lot of time to read at home, at least recently, most of my reading is from blogs and Twitter. These, however, never really satisfy me, and St. Thomas’s commentary made me realise just how unsatisfying they are.…

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Why I Watch Anime: An Internal Dialogue

In short, why do you watch anime?

A few reasons. One is that I enjoy the community. A few problems aside, I like exchanging thoughts with other fans on blogs, forums, and Twitter. Conventions and podcasts can be fun, too, and it also gives me something to share with my little sister.

Of course, there’s also my interest in Japanese culture generally; I’ve studied Japan’s language and history, and seek out Japanese films and literature. Primarily, though, the medium of traditional, 2D animation fascinates me, and Japan is the only nation that produces a lot of it.

What is the appeal of animation, then? If there’s a relative lack of material in that medium such that you have to go halfway around the world to find much of it, why not focus more on, say, its cousin film, which has a greater quantity and quality of work?

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On Surrounding Oneself with Books

I’ve occasionally mentioned, here and on Twitter, that I love books – not just reading, but the actual, physical objects, and try to surround myself with them. That “surrounding” is, in fact, literal since I don’t have much space in my room, and I long ago ran out of shelf space and have to stack new volumes on the floor. It’s something like stuffing the Library of Alexandria into a broom closet, or Yomiko’s room from R.O.D.

room

I haven’t even read many of these, and at the rate I collect more may well never have time to read them all. Is that a waste? Why do I feel compelled to buy so many books that I don’t even have time to read?…

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